Wednesday 19 June 2019

Tributes for forensic archaeologist who helped families of IRA 'Disappeared'

John McIlwaine, a forensic archaeologist with the University of Bradford who died suddenly last night at the age of 49. University of Bradford/PA Wire
John McIlwaine, a forensic archaeologist with the University of Bradford who died suddenly last night at the age of 49. University of Bradford/PA Wire

Lesley-Anne McKeown

Tributes have been paid to the top archeologist who helped bring closure to the anguished families of Northern Ireland's Disappeared.

John McIlwaine, had led the team of excavators searching clandestine graves to find the bodies of people who were kidnapped, killed and secretly buried by the IRA during the 1970s and 80s.

The academic, who grew up in Portadown, Co Armagh, was a forensic archaeologist with the University of Bradford. Hw died suddenly last night at the age of 49.

He was in charge of the team that recovered the remains of Danny McIlhone in 2008 and Charlie Armstrong in 2010.

Mr Armstrong's daughter Anna McShane recognised his dedication.

She said: "I remember him as an awfully nice man who was so good to our family. He worked tirelessly in the most dreadful conditions to find my father.

"May he rest in peace."

Mr McIlwaine had previously described it as a "privilege" to lead searches for the Disappeared and said their success had far outstripped predictions at the start of the process.

Geoff Knupfer the chief forensic scientist and investigator with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains (ICVLR) said: "John began work with the ICLVR in 2006 and with his great knowledge and experience made a huge contribution to our work.

"Searching for the Disappeared in bleak and inhospitable places requires a special kind of dedication and commitment as well as great skill and that is what John had in abundance."

Seventeen people were abducted and murdered by republicans between 1972 and 2003.

The ICVLR was set up after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and so far, the bodies of 10 people have been recovered.

Others still missing include Joe Lynskey, a former Cistercian monk from West Belfast, Captain Robert Nairac of the SAS, and 19-year-old Columba McVeigh from Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

Oliver McVeigh said: "It is very sad news. He was one of the unsung heroes working away quietly in the background.

"It is sad for his family and sad for us because we have lost an individual who could maybe have helped our cases."

The ICVLR said excavation work would continue at Oristown bog in Co Meath to find west Belfast newlywed Brendan Megraw who vanished in 1978.

Sandra Peake, from the Wave Trauma Centre which has supported the families of the Disappeared since 1995, said: "John had a way of humanising the science which helped families understand more clearly what was being done to find their loved ones.

"There was a bond between John and the families and that is reflected today in the number of them who have contacted Wave to express their shock and sorrow."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the University of Bradford said staff and students had been left shocked by the tragedy.

He said: "John was an incredibly motivated, loyal and reliable individual. He inspired and supported hundreds of students in Archaeological Sciences, he supported the local community in West Yorkshire in so many ways and he achieved a life's ambition in helping to ameliorate the pain and suffering of families of the Disappeared.

"This is a very sad time for staff and students at the University of Bradford, both present and past.

"Our thoughts are, of course, with his family."

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